Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg, the oldest member of the Senate and the longest-serving New Jersey senator, died today at age 89.
Lautenberg, who had been battling health problems, died of viral pneumonia, sources said. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will appoint a replacement for Lautenberg, who was not planning to seek re-election in 2014.
U.S. Rep. Rush Holt said the loss of Lautenberg was personal, as well as a loss for the state and the country.
“I don’t think there will ever again be anybody quite like Frank Lautenberg,” Holt said. “Frank came from humble beginnings, and he never forgot that. The GI Bill sent him to Columbia University, and he always felt grateful for that and felt a need to pay back. Much will be said about his accomplishments: keeping trains and buses safe, promoting public health, safeguarding chemical plants, keeping cigarettes out of planes, and more. But what stands out in my mind is what Frank did to prevent drunk driving. As part of his transportation work, he established limits on blood alcohol levels. Today you could fill several football stadiums with people who are alive only because of Frank Lautenberg – and not one of them knows who they are.”
Holt said Frank was dogged and persistent.
“His colleagues in the Senate would sometimes laugh or smile about that: ‘Here comes Frank again to try to twist our arms.’ They liked him. Frank did his homework. He knew what he was talking about, and he just kept fighting,” Holt said. “Frank and I worked together on a number of things, so I feel this loss very personally. Frank, we miss you, but your ideas and your legacy live on.”
Lautenberg championed civil rights throughout his career, from authoring the Ryan White Care Act, enacted in 1990, to leading the charge to reverse the Peace Corps’s policy of denying women coverage of abortion services just this April. He challenged the assault on civil liberties following the Sept. 11 attacks while preserving funding to defend our ports, recognizing that Americans can be both safe and free. He voted to preserve habeas corpus in Guantanamo Bay, to require reports from CIA interrogators, and to prohibit government wiretaps undertaken without a warrant.
“Sen. Lautenberg constantly made New Jersey proud, not only for standing up for the rights of Americans, but often for leading the charge to preserve those rights,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “He led with a personal imperative to serve the people who elected him, and his tenacity in doing the right thing on their behalf only sharpened over the years. He never lost sight of where he came from, and he never lost his fire for righting an injustice. Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s tireless fight to strengthen our freedoms has made our country, and New Jersey, a better place for all who live here.”
Lautenberg was born in Paterson, New Jersey, the son of Polish and Russian immigrants who came to the United States through Ellis Island. His early life was unsettled as his parents moved about a dozen times while struggling to support the family. His father, Sam, worked in the silk mills, sold coal, farmed and once ran a tavern. When Lautenberg was 19, his father died of cancer. To help his family, he worked nights and weekends until he graduated from Nutley High School.
After graduating from Nutley, Lautenberg enlisted and served in the Army Signal Corps in Europe. Following the war, he attended Columbia University on the G.I. Bill and graduated with a degree in economics. With his military service completed and his education secured, Lautenberg set out to build a career. He joined with two boyhood friends from his old neighborhood to found the nation’s first payroll services company, Automatic Data Processing. Lautenberg served as chairman and CEO, and along with his partners developed ADP into one of the largest computing services company in the world.
Lautenberg first ran for the Senate in 1982. He was re-elected in 1988 and 1994. After a brief retirement, Sen. Lautenberg won a fourth term in 2002 and was re-elected to a fifth term in 2008. He served on three Senate committees: appropriations; Commerce, Science and Transportation; and Environment and Public Works. He also serves as chairman of two Senate subcommittees, one on the Commerce Committee and the second on Environment and Public Works.
Lautenberg was a resident of Cliffside Park. He is survived by his wife, Bonnie, his six children and 13 grandchildren.
“People who love and cherish peace at the community, state, national, and international levels have lost a true warrior for peace,” said the Rev. Bob Moore of the Coalition for Peace Action. “As the last surviving Senator to have served in World War II, Sen. Lautenberg had great credibility on issues of war, peace, and the needs of veterans. He used that credibility effectively to be a great champion for peace.”